Declining student enrollment in Arizona rural school districts and the shift to current year funding are hitting budgets hard, according to a recent analysis.
Beginning in the 2016-17 school year, Arizona school districts received per-pupil funding from the state based on the real-time number of students currently enrolled instead of the previous year’s count, as had been done for the past 30 years.
That change disproportionately impacts rural school districts, which often have fewer students than urban school districts, resulting in significant cuts to their budgets, said Dr. Anabel Aportela, director of research and analysis for Arizona School Business Officials and Arizona School Boards Association.
“This year, districts outside of Maricopa and Pima counties will lose about $19 million, because of that one change that most consider to be small,” Aportela said. “To those districts, it’s not a small change.”
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In the past four years, the number of K-12 district school students dropped sharply in nine of Arizona’s 15 counties – mostly in the state’s more rural areas, Aportela said.
“What we’re seeing in rural Arizona is not about school choice, it’s about migration to Maricopa County and away from most other counties in the state,” Aportela said.
One half of school districts in the United States are in rural areas, and about 64 percent of rural counties had high rates of children living in poverty, according to the recent report “Out of the Loop: Rural schools are largely left out of research and policy discussions, exacerbating poverty, inequity and isolation” by the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education.
Podcast by Brooke Razo/Arizona School Boards Association: How declining student enrollment impacts rural school’s budgets
Another study “Why Rural Matters,” released in June 2017 by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rural School and Community Trust, describes inequities in funding and opportunity that are leading to significant gaps in opportunity and achievement for rural students. The report urges state and federal leaders to make rural students and their communities a far greater priority. Along with a state snapshot, the report also provides analysis of STEM, early education, English-language learner programs in rural school districts and offers solutions.
Approximately 135 of Arizona’s 223 school districts are considered rural by the Arizona Rural Schools Association. They serve about 35 percent of all students in the state, according to Don German, ARSA’s executive director.
As declining enrollment has impacted rural school districts’ budgets, they’ve looked for other sources of revenue and many have asked voters to approve budget overrides or bond measures, but those elections have been harder to pass recently in rural Arizona, Aportela said.
“Last year, all of the overrides that passed were in Maricopa County,” Aportela said. “In the past 10 years, the number of districts outside of Maricopa County passing overrides has declined significantly.”
Also, property wealth is dropping in rural areas, which makes it harder to pass a bond election, Aportela said.
In addition, rural areas are more reliant on federal revenue sources such as Impact Aid, which means they are vulnerable to changes in federal funding, Aportela said.
The federal government pays Impact Aid to schools on or near federal or tribal lands which are not subject to state or local property taxes. Arizona is the largest recipient of Impact Aid, which schools usually receive in the spring, to pay for their current year operating expenses.
“We know that some counties in rural Arizona can be up to 20 percent funded by federal resources, which if there are changes in federal policies and the amount of money that the federal government is giving to states, then they will be disproportionately impacted as well,” Aportela said.
Students in rural areas faces challenges, especially since two-thirds of Americans who lack access to the internet live in rural communities, according to the Out of the Loop report.
Several other factors that impact rural school districts.
“They have higher levels of students with disabilities, are more reliant on federal dollars, have an even harder time finding teachers than everyone else, and they have very little capacity to augment the state formula,” Aportela said.
In addition, rural students have less access to higher level mathematics courses and Advanced Placement courses where they can earn college credit while still in high school, according to the Out of the Loop report.
While rural students are more likely to graduate from high school than urban students, they’re less likely to attend and graduate college, according to that same report.